Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. The Thing: Freakshow was a four-issue miniseries, part of a Marvel Icons imprint of sorts that gave solo adventures to various characters. This takes place when Ben had the ability to turn human and back, making it (initially) of interest.
Issue #1 begins with a flashback to Ben’s childhood, when he and a buddy sneak into a travelling carnival. They are grossed out by the freakshow and bully a monstrous-looking child. An old fortune teller woman casts a curse on Ben, saying “Cruel child. You will know tears one day.” In the present, the FF are in a parade in NYC, where the crowd still reacts to Ben as if he’s a monster. Nearby, the Wrecking Crew attacks a construction site. The FF save the day, but only Reed, Sue and Johnny are celebrated by the crowd. Ben was hurt by the Wrecker in the attack, so he can’t turn human again until the wound heals. He storms off angrily.
Then there’s some comedy where Ben boards a train for Myrtle Beach, only to get on the wrong train and end up in the countryside, in a small town in Michigan. There, he discovers the same travelling carnival he saw as a kid. That’s when he sees the monster kid from before, who is now grown into Thing-size of his own.
Ben initially wants to leave the carnival, but the monster breaks free of his chains and attacks. (This issue gives him the hugely unfortunate name of “the Accursed Albino,” but his name will later revealed to Istvan, so I’ll call him that.) The fight ends when Ben saves everyone from a crashing Ferris wheel. The carnival-goers celebrate Ben as a hero instead of fearing him, and he becomes a local celebrity in town.
At a diner, they fill up Ben with free food while the carnival ringleader, Paul Balk, chides Ben for not being a real freak because he was not born a monster. Then things get all Twilight Zone-y when the locals don’t know what a phone is or what cows are. Ben wanders off and finds a barn where he discovers the townspeople are Kree aliens in disguise, who have poisoned him. Ben flees back to carnival. Paul Balk reveals he is really Paibok the Power-Skrull in disguise, and that all the cows in town are fellow Skrulls.
Issue three starts with Ben fighting both the Skrulls and the carnival freaks, as Paibok says he now has mind-control powers which he has used to take over the carnival. Because he’s been poisoned, Ben isn’t able to fight at full strength. Then it gets really weird as Ben pukes up a small blue egg, which grows into an alien. Paibok says this is an Evolver, a deadly Kree assassin. The Evolver immediately grows into an adult female warrior Kree named Staak. The rest of the Kree in town drop their disguises and join the fight. Ben wanders off as the Kree and the Skrulls fight it out, hoping to find a way to contact Reed. Ben goes back to town, which is now deserted, and Istvan follows him.
Istvan can speak, and says he remembers Ben as the boy who was mean to him years ago. Ben apologizes, and he and Istvan share some apples for lunch. Ben decides to go back to the Kree barn to investigate what they’re up to. Inside, they learn the Kree are hiding a giant infant Watcher. The Kree have tied the Watcher’s see-everything powers into their computers, giving them a huge tactical advantage. Both the Kree and the Skrulls show up at the barn to fight over the Watcher, and Ben of course declares, “It’s clobberin’ time!”
Issue 4 kicks off with the big fight, where Paibok mind-controls Istvan into attacking Ben. After even more fighting, Istvan comes to his senses. He and the other carnival freaks, also free of Paibok’s mind control, help Ben get the Watcher baby to safety. The Kree and Skrulls attack again and Ben defeats Staak, turning her back into an egg (!). The Kree defeat the Skrulls, sealing Paibok inside a jar. Ben lies and tells the Kree that the Fantastic Four and the Avengers know that they are up to. The Kree believe him and depart. Other Watchers show up to collect the baby, and Ben is furious with them for not getting involved. The Watchers tell Ben they didn’t need to interfere because “the universe can count on beings like you.”
The baby, whose name is Talmadge, further explains that after he was abducted and taken to Earth, he saw Ben and Istvan in Ben’s memories and manipulated events so Ben would come to his rescue. The Watchers leave, and Istvan and the rest of the freaks, now free of their captors, hop a train. Ben feels like this is a victory. But then it rains on him as he makes the long walk back to New York, and he considers, “Things never change.”
Unstable molecule: Reed says he’s never seen the condensed flesh/muscle that’s directly under Ben’s rocky exterior, but we the readers have seen it a bunch of times. Maybe Reed means he hasn’t seen it since Ben got his ability to turn human again.
Fade out: Sue insists the FF participate in the parade, because it is not only good for NYC’s morale, but the morale of the FF as well. It has the opposite effect on Ben, however, making this a rare instance of Sue being completely wrong about something.
Clobberin’ time: Not only does this not explore Ben’s ability to turn human, that power is written out of the story right at the start. Still, these issues gets to the heart of who he is, in how he might look like a monster but he’s a good person at the end of the day.
Flame on: Johnny is running late for the FF’s parade because he’s watching a “swimsuit special” on TV.
Trivia time: This miniseries is the only appearance of Istvan and Talmage. Staak the Evolver will later show up in a group gathering of FF villains in the Fantastic Four: Foes miniseries.
When we last saw Paibok the Power Skrull, he and his buddy Devos the Devastator were believed dead after their spaceship was sucked into subspace. He says alien Centarians gave him his mind-control power, so maybe they’re the ones who saved him? While Paibok was originally described as having the powers of all the X-Men, this miniseries and the Marvel wiki agree that he only has Colossus’ strength, Storm’s lighting, and Iceman’s ice powers. No adamantium for Paibok. He will later return in the Annhilation crossover.
When does this miniseries take place? We’re told the parade is to thank the FF for saving the world after a recent cosmic event. It can’t be the Abraxas storyline, because Sue would have been pregnant with Valeria at the time. Instead, I believe this occurs right after the Inhumans/Hidden Ones story, which had NYC all riled up and could be considered “cosmic” in that the Inhumans left for the moon at the end.
The other characters who got Marvel Icons miniseries were Vision, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Rogue, Iceman, Tigra, and Chamber. (I question whether Chamber is an “icon.”)
Fantastic or frightful? I like the carnival setting and Ben’s apology and subsequent friendship with Istvan. The story loses something when it becomes Kree/Skrull/Watcher weirdness, because it takes the focus from Ben. Bringing back Paibok of all characters seems especially random. Call this one a mixed bag, I guess.
Next: Grant application.
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